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Country: France
Year: 
2011
Director: Michel Hazanavicius
Screenplay: Michel Hazanavicius
Cinematography: Guillaume Schiffman
Cast: Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, Uggie
Runtime: 100 min
Trailer: on YouTube
Film’s official website: Weinstein Co.

Currently screening in UK cinemas (and elsewhere).

L’artiste is that film: the one that has been winning big at all the award ceremonies this season, scooping Best Film at the Golden Globes in January as well as at the BAFTAs last Sunday (plus multiple other awards at both ceremonies). The Oscars only take place later this month (on February 26), but we can likely expect something similar. The film is nominated in ten categories and is also considered a strong contender for the Best Film statue – even more so, because L’artiste managed to charm Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein.*

George Valentin, the artist, at the height of fame, and devoted fan Peppy Miller.

What has garnered L’artiste so much attention is of course that it is a silent film in the era of 3D, CGI, motion capture and other innovative, state-of-the-art digital technology. Set in the late 1920s and early 1930s, L’artiste was filmed in a manner to give the impression as if it it had been made back then: the picture is in black and white and has the orchestral musical score typical for that time. Most importantly, there is no spoken dialogue. There are, however, intertitles, that is, dialogue in the form of written text inserted between shots. Although these inserts are limited in number, a completely dialogueless film (à la the short 소년, 소년을 만나다/Boy Meets Boy, 2008) would have been artistically even more intriguing.

L’artiste tells a story about the world of Hollywood cinema at a moment when silent films were about to be replaced by the first productions with spoken words and focuses on two leads (and a dog). George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is an artist of the old times (i.e. silent films) while the up-and-coming starlet Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) belongs to the new generation of talking actors. The battle between silence and sound signifies the downfall of one of them, both terms of career and personal life, and the meteoric rise of the other, a situation that is complicated by the two characters’ personal relationship as Peppy remains an avid admirer of George even long after he has fallen out of favour with everyone else.

Star on meteoric rise: Hollywood’s new, talking sweetheart (with beauty spot)

The appeal of the film, for me, does not lie in this story: indeed, I found the narrative a little lacking at times, in particular because isn’t clear why Peppy permits George to fall as low as he does before reaching out to him. She is young and outspoken, and she adores the man from the start. It isn’t shyness that keeps her merely observing George from the distance, and neither is it lack of access to him (she initially becomes a film extra just to be working on his sets), nor the fact that he is married (the marriage falls apart very soon). The only reason I can come up with is for the sake of having a narrative conflict, which is precisely why this part of the story isn’t all that compelling.

What does delight is L’artiste’s playfulness and craft, such as with the silent production mode already mentioned. Both Dujardin and Bejo possess wonderfully expressive faces and bodies, the former deserving particular praise, although both are highly capable of telling their characters’ story without words. Equally, when words are finally uttered – the film, after all is a story of two actors as well as a history of filmmaking – it feels very natural. There is also play through the use of metacinematic elements throughout: we are watching a film within which viewers are watching film that stars George Valentin, who is also the hero of our story. Furthermore, there are a number of highly memorable scenes, including one in which Peppy secretly enters George’s dressing room in his absentia and slips her hand into the sleeve of his jacket, as well as just about all scenes involving Uggie, the dog: that dog, that has been walking red carpets everywhere and that will make his final appearance before retiring at the Academy Awards. It is a pity indeed that the Oscars do not hand out prizes for animal actors, because little Uggie is as much a star in this film as Dujardin and Bejo

The invisible man? A memorable scene, in any case.

L’artiste is a delight because it is a novelty. It is well-made but don’t expect it to start a new trend in silent film production – indeed, even the film’s turn at the end dismisses this possibility as the era of cinematic sound productions arrives.

Overall Verdict: As the ‘it’ film of the year L’artiste has been charming critics and viewers alike, and while we will still enjoy it in years to come, it is a one-off novelty more than anything else.

Rating: 8/10

*There is no reason to pretend – the Oscars, as many film awards, are very much a political rather than purely artistic affair.

Bonus Bit:

  • A review from the Telegraph, which notes Charlie Chaplin’s conflict with “talkies” (i.e. films with spoken dialogue). I struggled a little to understand the character George Valentin’s objection to act in “talkies”, but the references to Chaplin are insightful in this aspect: the objections of the the artist must be viewed through the lens of that time so long ago.

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